Friday, December 19, 2008

Value Images: Tragedy

One of the byproducts of living in a pluralistic world of mutual contradictions is that we live in a world of tragedy. Tragedy, unfortunately, is an essential part of our values. If you find this hard to believe, consider this - without our values, tragedy would have little effect on us. One of the very valuable insights of Buddhism is that we suffer because we value things, people, the world and images. Death would not be a tragedy if we did not value life. However, contra traditional Buddhism, detachment is not the solution. What are we without our values?

Tragedy is an essential part of our values (no matter our values) because so many of our values have a powerful claim on being just. However, our values are never unitary and non-contradictory. Walking contradictions, all of us. This mutual contradictory authority of our values inevitably leads us to choosing, from action to action, one value over another. One of the archetypal tragic situations is where one is on a cliff side with two loved ones hanging on the edge by their fingers laced through each of your hands. You don't have the strength to pull both up so you have to choose which person to save. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is when you don't choose - for all your values and valued suffer, then. Before one thinks that such is a very artificial situation, consider that our lives are filled with such choices, just on a lesser scale. Even a decision on what I will eat today contains a conflict of what foods I like. We usually don't consider such decisions tragic simply because our food values are usually fairly low on our value hierarchy (although I have seen people get upset for not getting chocolate before!).

Part of the tragedy of our values contains what Derrida called the "undecidability" of responsibility. When we have different values, both with effective authority, pulling us in multiple directions, rationality will not save us. There is no "rationally" better option. Our actions contain an element of undecidability. This is not absolutely miserable, though, since our very responsibility depends upon a certain undecidability. If our actions were resolvable in a simple fashion (say like a simple math problem) we would not be human, we would have no responsibility - we would be mechanical beings in a mechanical world. When one has two loved ones hanging on a cliff side, there is no responsible choice, but responsibility calls us to choose. Responsibility calls us to not let go, to not give up in the fact of tragedy. This is why we cannot detach from the world - the very tragedy in our own values demands action. We know tragedy will come from our actions, but the tragedy that precedes us drives us to act towards our values, to build a better world. We cannot give up because tragedy has a hold on us at the cliff side, even as we have a hold on our loved ones. We cannot give up because undecidability forces us to take responsibility for our actions. We are the ones responsible (for tragedy). And yet, our responsibility comes from our tragedy.

We cannot give up our values. We also cannot try to harmonize our values. This was made clear by the role pluralism plays within any value system. So, we must live with the tragedy of our values. We should also not attempt to formalize and hierarchize our values. The single-issue voter is a perfect example of someone who has hierarchized his values - they have sacrificed the considerations of all of their other values for the sake of one value. Consider the issue of abortion. One who identifies themselves as a pro-life voter (or pro-choice voter) all too often is exactly that - a pro-life-voter. The act of voting is inseperable from the value of pro-life (when it comes to abortion). Perhaps the most glaring inconsistancy here is that many pro-life voters are not pro-life (since they are often pro-war or pro-death penalty). However, the fear of such a singular-voting-position is this - the individual has become terrorized by a value, such that the individual is frozen in his stance for the position. Since all our values are without any foundation, the only possible way to shift in our allegiance to certain values is by appeal to other values. For example, one might be able to convince a patriotic christian that their christian values are in conflict with their patriotism (particularly over a certain issue, say, like being pro-war). This ability for the conflicts in our values to be teased out prevents us from living in terror from a singular value, from the gravity of a singularity. This tension prevents us from acting out of that terror, from terrorizing the world with our singularity. For, after all, when we live out of one value, we decieve ourselves. We value too much to pretend that only one thing matters.

Perhaps the greatest terror here, however, is the ability for humans to rationalize against the tragedy of the moment. It is so hard to live in the tragedy of the moment. When I was a child, and I looked upon the motionless body of my mother, I wanted to be any place else. I couldn't live within the tragedy. This was not how the world should be.

Instead of living in the terror of the moment, however, we must live in the tragedy. I remember quite clearly that I remained in the room for an hour or so where my mom died, but not out of my own strength. I had looked into my Dad's eyes, and the mutual tragedy we shared gave us strength to honor the tragedy. We would not give up on a tragic world, a world of tragic relationships. I would not have had the strength to stand against terror if not for my dad in that moment - our relationships are what hold us to stand for the tragedy of the moment instead of the terror of the moment. Our relationships are what reveal to us the multidimensional realities to our values as opposed to the terror of the monolithic value we so often wish to rationalize over the others. After all, sometimes the tragedy of the moment is beyond our control (such as with my mom's death) and sometimes it is of our own creation (when we live within the terror of a monolith). Perhaps, all too often, it is both.

The most frightening element of the way our monolithic terror defines us all too often is not only the ability to rationalize our own singularity, but the way we can place the gravity of that singularity over others as well. When I refuse to recognize the authority of others' values because of my own singularity, I remove their humanity. For we are human because of our ability to value. I deface the other. Terror becomes totalitarianism. This is why we must always be open in our relationships with others. We must allow others to transform our terror into tragedy.

However, as omnipresent as tragedy is in our lives, it is not the final reality. Tragedy won't allow itself to be the final statement. This is one of the differences between tragedy and terror. Terror is self-reflective - terror continues on (without being broken in relationship) in inertial reciprocity. Terror eggs itself on. Tragedy, however, does not allow us to leave it as the final piece in our story. When we are confronted by the tragedy of the moment, we are forced to confront that this is not how the world is supposed to be. We cannot live eternally in the tragedy of the moment. Instead, our will to justice and hope comes from the tragic moment. Confronted with the tragic moment, we cannot reject responsibility. Instead, driven by our values, we must move onwards, into the next moment. We must act into the next moment, driven by the tragedy of our last moment. We cannot give up. Tragedy will not leave us. We should not allow it to leave us. For if the tragedy of the moment leaves us, we will be dominated by our terror. For we must not forget that as we live in our tragedy, our cry for justice will not leave us. Our cries for hope will lead us into the next tragic moment.

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